The Italian Learner’s Practical Guide to Subject Pronouns
Pronouns are kind of like microchips.
Small, but complex.
This isn’t to say that they can’t be figured out, though.
Italian pronouns come in a number of varieties, and mastering each is vital to achieving fluency. Subject pronouns in particular are definitely not to be ignored. They’re a big key to getting a solid grasp on the sometimes confusing world of Italian grammar.
This might all sound a little stressful, but understanding Italian subject pronouns is actually fairly straightforward.
This post is going to act as a primer to help you get the basic lowdown on these vital little pieces of Italian grammar.
The Quick but Complete Guide to Italian Subject Pronouns
Below, we’ll walk you through each of the different Italian subject pronouns and how they’re connected to verb conjugation in Italian, plus a little trick that lets you leave them out altogether.
What Makes Subject Pronouns Important?
Without subject pronouns, communication is extremely difficult—and fluency is just about impossible. As the name implies, these are pronouns that are used to refer to the subject of a sentence.
Most people know that replacing proper nouns (like names) with pronouns (like “he” or “she”) is one of the most basic grammatical tools in most languages. Italian is just the same, with a number of useful subject pronouns that apply to any number of contexts.
Subject pronouns are vital to making your speech sound natural. Imagine if you were talking about a single person, and could only use their actual name instead of a “she” or a “he” every so often to break it up. Using these pronouns lets your speech flow in a way that’ll help you blend in with native speakers.
The benefits go even further beyond that, of course. Without subject pronouns, referring to yourself in the first person or the people that you’re speaking to just isn’t doable. Knowing how to talk about yourself as “I” is a much-needed element of nearly any language. Subject pronouns give you the tools to make your language skillset strong, more natural-sounding and grammatically accurate.
The Lineup of Italian Subject Pronouns
Now, we’ve established just why our new friends, the subject pronouns, are so important. Let’s get to know them.
There’s a pretty big group of subject pronouns in the Italian language, but try not to be intimidated. They’re easily tamed.
The most common Italian subject pronouns are the following:
Voi (You all)
These are the Italian subject pronouns that you’ll likely run into the most often.
There are other, more formal subject pronouns in Italian that you might not see quite as consistently, but it’s important to know them nonetheless.
Take the pronoun “they,” for example: it’s commonly written as loro but you can also use essi (the formal masculine form) or esse (the formal feminine form). Similarly, lui and lei (“he” and “she”) can be referred to formally in Italian as egli and essi (he) or ella and essa (she).
The pronoun Lei can also be used as a formal way of saying “you.” This can be a bit confusing next to tu and voi, but we’ll cover that in detail soon enough.
Unsurprisingly, since these are formal pronouns, they should be used more often in situations where you want to be particularly polite. They’re also more commonly found in written form (such as in books) than spoken aloud.
When to Use the Different “You” Pronouns
I told you that we’d come back to this, didn’t I?
“You” has plenty of different forms in Italian. If your first language is English, this can potentially come off as a little bit weird. We only really have one “you.” Let’s go over the different kinds of “yous” that are used in Italian.
- Tu: This is considered a basic “you.” It’s fairly informal, meaning that it’s best used around people that you have a casual relationship with. This includes people like family and close friends.
Bouncing off of that, it’d be considered a little rude to use it to refer to strangers or people in positions of power, or any other situation that might be deemed formal.
- Voi: This pronoun can seem odd at first blush. It has a very specific meaning, referring to “you” as a group of people. The English language does have an equivalent that can make it much easier to understand, though: think “y’all.”
While this English “translation” is a little more informal than voi, it does help express the general idea. Voi is best used whenever “you all” would be appropriate in English.
- Lei: As we discussed earlier, Lei is the formal version of tu. This might seem especially confusing now that we’ve established that lei can also mean “she.” The difference between the two can usually be inferred based on context.
Some people choose to differentiate them by writing the “you” form with a capital L (Lei, as opposed to lei for “she”). This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, however.
Who Are You Talking About? First, Second and Third Person
This one’s easy.
Pronouns can usually be easily divided into point of view and the way they refer to subjects, in first, second and third person. You probably already have a pretty good idea of what this means from English class, but that doesn’t mean a new language can’t make it a little strange. Here’s a simple breakdown of what this means in Italian.
- First-person subject pronouns refer to yourself in some way. This means that io and noi both qualify.
- Second-person subject pronouns refer to anyone that qualifies as meaning “you.” This includes tu, Lei and voi.
- Third-person means pronouns that don’t mean “you,” but also refer to people outside of yourself. This set of pronouns includes lui, lei, loro and all of their formal counterparts.
This simple grammatical division helps you better understand what pronoun fits what situation. It may be easy to figure out, but it never hurts to know it well.
How Subjects Impact Conjugation
Understanding these pronouns isn’t as simple as just remembering them.
The Italian language’s verb conjugation rules rely on the subject of the sentence. This is a fairly common grammatical rule in most Romance languages (languages that evolved from Latin), such as Spanish or French. It’s not so similar in English, a Germanic language. This means that for English speakers, subject-based conjugation like this might take a little getting used to.
Here are some examples to help you out. The Italian verb avere (to have) is conjugated the following way for different subjects:
Io ho (I have)
Tu hai (You have)
Lui/Lei ha (He/She has)
Noi abbiamo (We have)
Voi avete (You all have)
Loro hanno (They have)
Just about every verb in the Italian language has its own form of conjugation depending on the subject and what tense you’re using (from basics like the present tense to more complicated ones like the past subjunctive).
As you continue your studies, you’ll see that conjugation rules are almost always presented like the above, with each verb form next to its associated subject pronoun. Getting the Italian subject pronouns down pat now will make memorization of all those conjugation rules much easier down the line.
Use Subject Pronouns or Lose ‘Em (It’s Your Choice!)
Once you’re familiar with the Italian subject pronouns and their relationship to verb conjugation, you’re ready to take it to the next level—knowing when you can drop them.
Some languages like Italian allow you to remove the subject pronoun from your sentences entirely, letting the conjugated verb pick up the slack. In other words, because each verb form is different for each subject, you don’t need a subject pronoun to tell you who/what the subject is.
Don’t quite get it yet? Here’s an example.
These two sentences both have the same meaning, and both are grammatically correct:
Io ho una mela. (I have an apple.)
Ho una mela. (I have an apple.)
“Io ho” uses that conjugation of avere that we talked about in the previous section. If you look back, you’ll notice each conjugation is different. This means that any sentence using “ho” as its verb will instantly translate to “I have” instead of just “have.”
This wouldn’t quite work in English. If someone were to just say “Have the best apartment,” you wouldn’t know if they meant to say “I have the best apartment,” “You have the best apartment,” “We have the best apartment,” etc.
Italian subject pronouns might intimidate you a bit at first, especially if your first language is English. With a little work, however, these pronouns can be wrangled and used with ease.